Most likely you’ve seen traditional hot rock saunas in popular culture or at the gym. They’re simple enough–just wooden rooms with a heater where people sit in towels and sweat. These traditional style saunas have been around for ages, going back to when mankind used to relax in small rooms with fireplaces where stones were heated and then doused with water to generate steam or just left dry. Originally, this was a way for people to take a shower and rinse off before hot running water.
Within the last 30 years, a new variation on the sauna tradition has appeared: infrared saunas. Infrared saunas share the same basic idea and philosophy of their traditional steam sauna counterparts—they raise your body temperature in a controlled situation—but the way infrared saunas accomplish this is quite different.
How Infrared Saunas Work
- Infrared saunas work by harnessing the natural energy of the sun–infrared light. Infrared is generated any time an object holds heat and releases that heat into its surrounding environment. When an object is heated its internal molecules charge which then increases that object’s temperature. The object then releases some of this energy in the form of heat, which is actually invisible, infrared light. We can’t see this light but we can feel it as heat! In an infrared sauna, this light is created by passing an electrical current through an infrared-producing conductive material like ceramic clay or carbon fiber panels.
- The electric current energizes the conductive material it passes through, and infrared energy is released as hot, invisible light that is able to penetrate a user’s skin without heating much of the surrounding air. We say about 80 percent of the energy released gets absorbed by your body and 20 percent goes into the air.
- Infrared Saunas get up above 110 degrees (the operating temperature is 110-140 F) but do not need to get above 180+ degrees in order to elicit the desired healthful response in the human body. They are much more comfortable as a result.
How Traditional Saunas Work
- Traditional saunas generate heat by heating hot rocks which then heat the air. By pouring water onto the rocks it creates steam to increase the air temperature and warms the skin of the sauna user.
- The humid steam and heat created by the boiling water or the water poured on rocks is confined to a small area where a person sits for an extended time in order to reap the associated health benefits.
- Traditional rock saunas generally reach somewhere between 185 and 190 degrees before eliciting the desired healthful sauna response from the human body.
Traditional hot rock saunas have different goals than infrared saunas. Historically, these types of saunas were actually used for bathing or pure relaxation, and the health benefits were a secondary concern that became emphasized later. However, over time the people who used rock saunas began to associate them with health benefits. Consider the list below:
- Pain relief: People who have chronic conditions such as arthritis report a reduction in symptoms as the body is warmed.
- Injury recovery: People who have suffered injuries, such as broken bones, report a faster recovery by using a sauna.
- Cure for the common cold: Not a cure, per se, but rather an easing of cold symptoms is common for those who use saunas. Steam can also be helpful in reducing congestion and clearing phlegm.
- Clearer skin: There’s no debating it—time in a sauna leads to healthier, clearer skin as your pores clear from constant and frequent sweating.
- Stress relief: Many of the ancient cultures who indulged in what we would later come to think of as steam saunas did so for stress release. In fact, this was a major motivation of the Native Americans who had sweat lodges as a part of their culture.
- Weight loss: Due to the extreme amounts of sweating that take place in saunas, weight loss is likely to occur.
Infrared saunas, interestingly, have a broader range of health benefits than traditional steam saunas do. We’ve seen that one of the key benefits cited by those who enjoy infrared saunas is the ability to lower inflammation. This reduction of inflammation actually causes many of the health benefits discussed below:
- Detoxification: The far infrared wavelengths given off in infrared saunas decrease the size of water clusters inside the human body, giving toxins greater mobility to pass out of body tissues and leave the body. Toxins commonly purged by use of an infrared sauna include PCB’s and heavy metals such as mercury and lead.
- Increased Cardiovascular Health: Infrared saunas cause the human heart to beat faster without plunging the body into the stressful state that usually causes a fight or flight reaction. When the heart is beating faster, blood capillaries pass just below the skin’s surface and sweat is released. In this state, more blood passes through the heart with less resistance by the arteries and veins, thus lowering blood pressure.
- Weight Loss: Like traditional saunas, infrared saunas cause weight loss through sweating. Infrared saunas, however, also raise the body’s metabolism in a way that manages to guard against burning away protein while maintaining a healthy body fluid level. Some experts estimate that users can burn as many as 600 calories in a 30-minute infrared sauna session. To be honest, it’s not that high. But over time you will see some loss of weight. Many users say that the increased metabolism also leaves them with a clarity of mind that they generally associate with an exercise high.
- Reduced Stress: Using an infrared sauna soothes the body and reduces a user’s proclivity to fall into the physically stressful condition known as fight or flight mode or the sympathetic nervous system response. As a result using an infrared sauna over time will calm your nerves and put you into the parasympathetic nervous system mode.
- Pain relief and chronic conditions: Many studies have shown infrared saunas to be effective in reducing pain related to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue, poor digestion, and chronic muscle or joint pains. Of this list, the most commonly cited benefits are lowered side effects of diabetes, lower chronic pain from arthritis, and improved heart function.
- Better skin: Being free of the toxins that are cleansed by infrared saunas makes the skin look healthier and almost glow. Infrared saunas have also been effective in reducing acne and the effects of skin conditions like psoriasis.
Infrared Sauna Costs
- Smaller to midsize infrared saunas don’t require the dedicated breakers that traditional steam saunas do, but some of the medium and larger sized infrared saunas do require a dedicated 20 amp plug, which can be installed by a skilled electrician for about $100.
- Infrared saunas have lower operating costs than their traditional steam sauna counterparts because they’re not running costly hot rock heaters which pull more electricity. In general, the cost to run an infrared sauna is about 25 percent of a traditional sauna.
- Installation and purchase costs for infrared saunas vary quite a bit, starting on the lowest end at about $1,000 to the higher end of $6,000. About 95 percent of our customers are able to install their own infrared sauna.
Traditional Sauna Costs
- Traditional saunas require their own dedicated breakers to function, which can be costly to have installed.
- Rock saunas require more energy to run than infrared saunas since they must heat the whole room. The heaters in steam saunas also spend more time running since they must be turned on at least half an hour before use.
- On the low end, a homeowner having a traditional steam sauna installed can expect to spend anywhere from $2,000 up to $6,000, on average. A custom-built variety of sauna can cost as much as $10,000 in some instances.
What Type of Sauna Is Right for You?
Well, that all depends. If you’ve grown up using traditional saunas, and you’ve become acclimated to the high temperatures and the steam, there might be something about the humidity in a traditional sauna that you find to be cleansing and beneficial. These saunas can also be better at times for folks who only plan to use their saunas now and then, rather than regularly or therapeutically.
Conversely, infrared saunas, with their lower electrical operating costs and shorter session times, are much better choices for users who plan to sit in their sauna every day, particularly users who are investing in a sauna as therapy for one of the many chronic conditions infrared saunas have proven useful in treating. Infrared saunas are also a great choice for people who are focused on health and fitness, particularly if they’re engaged in muscle-building routines that require high protein diets, or if they simply want to lose some weight.